One of the things I really enjoy about living in Marion is the fact that all of the kids in town go to the same high school. That was not my experience when I was growing up. In Bloomington, Indiana there are two high schools: Bloomington South and Bloomington North. I went to North and during that time North had 1600 students while South was closer to 2000.
North was the “other” high school in town since it had started in 1972. South was located at the site of what had been the Bloomington High School, as the school district continued to add on to the building. They might have changed the name to Bloomington High School South, but many people still treated it as the Bloomington High School. In fact in the late 1980’s a sign outside the school was the original Bloomington High School sign, to which they had simply added in lettering that was clearly new the word “South” – a little reminder about the way things really were.
Two high schools in a town the size of Bloomington meant that loyalties were always divided. I didn’t realize the extent to which that was true until we moved to Marion and began raising our family. Here, grade school children play sports wearing Marion Wildcat uniforms, and that is the only uniform they will wear all the way through high school. The community is focused only one school because everyone is a Wildcat.
Yet while my town may be united, it turns out that my congregation is actually quite divided. As you know, in this area that does not have a large Lutheran presence, we are really more of a regional church. Our members come from all around the area here in southern Illinois. And that means we have high school youth who attend a whole variety of schools. We have, or have had recently, Marion, Carterville, Carbondale, Herrin, Johnston City and West Frankfort all represented. At times we have members who compete against each other in sports.
There were divisions at the church in Rome as well when Paul wrote to them. Of course, they had nothing to do with schools or sports. Instead, there were Jews and Gentiles in the church and there was tension over how much the view inherited from Judaism should guide behavior. Some, described by Paul as the “weak” felt that the Torah should guide how they viewed certain foods and days. Others, described by Paul as the “strong” believed that in the era of the Gospel this was no longer a concern for them. Paul is bringing this discussion to a close when our text begins. He has just said, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” The apostle tells the Romans that in the life of the Christian, our concern is not to be only about ourselves. In fact, we are instead to look out for our neighbor. We are to seek to build the other person up. While this is, of course, true in every area of life it is supremely true in the Church. For as Paul has just shared in chapter twelve, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
We are to bear up other and not seek first to please ourselves. At the beginning of our text Paul provides the reason this is so: “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” Clearly, Jesus did not please himself. During Advent we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. It is easy to treat this as a quaint event as we see it depicted on Christmas cards and decorations.
Instead the scene of the baby Jesus in the manger should remind us that when the Son of God entered into our world he humbled himself in order to serve us. And the feeding trough for a bed is merely a symbol for the real humility he was displaying. Though he was almighty God in the flesh, he did not use his power to serve himself. When he met with opposition, he did not strike back. Instead he allowed the reproaches to fall upon himself. And when finally they went to crucify him, he allowed this too. Jesus did it because he was serving us through his death – he was giving us forgiveness and salvation.
The apostle tells us the true perspective on all of Scripture that we now have because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He writes, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
Paul says that the Old Testament was written for our instruction. And it serves the purpose that through endurance and through encouragement we may have hope. The Christian life does involve endurance – of being faithful in the face of challenging circumstances. But the apostle reminds us that we do this aided by the encouragement of the Scriptures. This encouragement is found when we see how God’s people of old were faithful in the face of a pagan world. And in particular, we receive encouragement when we see how through all of the history of Israel was God working out the salvation that entered into the world on Christmas Eve. Because this has now culminated in the risen Lord we have a living hope.
Since this is true, Paul expresses the wish, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God is the source of endurance and the hope found in Jesus Christ and so Paul expresses the wish in our text that is true for us as well – that God may grant to us to be united in thought as we think in ways that are shaped by Jesus. For when this happens we can join together in praising and glorifying God the Father who sent his Son into the world to save us.
As Paul brings this thought to close he says in our text, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Through the leading of the Spirit, Jesus’ Gospel action for us becomes the thing that prompts and guides the way we treat one another.
Paul says that we now welcome one another because Christ has welcomed all people – he did it for both Jews and Gentiles as he fulfilled the Father’s will. We serve one another in Christ because Jesus became a servant. According to Paul, he did this for two reasons. First, the apostle tells us that he, “became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs.” As we see the Son of God enter into the world on Christmas, he does so in Bethlehem as the son of David. Jesus was born and carried out his ministry as a servant to the descendants of Israel in order to show that God is truthful. What he says he does. You can count on it. He also did this in order to confirm the promises that God had made to the saints of the Old Testament. God’s word does not fail. The promises he made to Abraham and David and Isaiah have been fulfilled.
And this fulfillment has revealed that God’s salvation has no limitations. Paul says it has happened, “in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” It has happened in order that you may glorify God because of the mercy he has lavished on you. It is easy to forget that, unless you are Jewish and descend from Israel, you had no claim on God and his salvation. You were not part of the covenant he made with Israel. He owed you nothing. But purely on the basis of his mercy he has included you. He has given forgiveness and salvation as a gift to use as well. And so there is nothing for us to do except glorify and praise God.
Jesus fulfilled the promises made to the fathers. And after a series of three passages from the Old Testament that talk about how the Gentile will praise God, Paul concludes with a verse from Isaiah. There the prophet writes, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.”
Isaiah declares that the Messiah descended from David will be the One in whom the Gentiles will hope. This is an important theme in Isaiah’s prophecy. He expresses the remarkable truth that the Gentiles too will come to Yahweh. For Isaiah this is an event of the end times.
We hear for the first time about this already in the second chapter and there is not doubt about what era Isaiah is describing. He writes, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Yahweh shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’”
Isaiah describes this as a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The verse quoted in our text then is from Isaiah chapter eleven where the prophet has just declared, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” We learn that the Spirit of the Yahweh will rest upon him and then Isaiah tells us that at the time of the Messiah, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” It will be the time when, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Yahweh as the waters cover the sea.”
The apostle Paul comforts us with the knowledge that this salvation has begun. It began when the Son of God was incarnate and born in Bethlehem. It began in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And therefore, glorious future described by the prophet will be ours. It will be ours when Christ returns. This is our hope. And so Paul’s wish for the Romans is his wish for us as well, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”